Sexism in a bird map?

In case you were wondering what an immature female Baltimore Oriole looks like...

This morning, my four-year-old daughter spread out her “bird map” (the Peterson FlashGuide to Backyard Birds–a laminated fold-out with illustrations of various birds), gathering characters for a play scenario.  She has lately been fixated on the name “Oriole” (which came about when she misheard someone who said “Ariel,” referring to the Disney Princess) and the name “Oriole” has stuck.  (If you’re new to my blog, I’ve ranted here and elsewhere about Disney Princesses.) It’s been a refrain for her pretend names.  So this morning, she perused her bird map for the Baltimore Oriole.  As she often wants to play that she’s the mama and one of her dolls or stuffed animals is the baby, she looked for pictures of the mama and “girl” Orioles.  She asked which picture was the baby girl.  There are drawings of adult male and female Baltimore Orioles, and an “immature” male.  But no immature female.  Quickly switching species, she asked if there were any other baby girl birds shown.  We looked.  There were none.  There were other youngsters listed as simply “immature” and a couple other “immature” males, but no females.  I told her she could pretend one of them was a girl (maybe it was, after all!) but she did not want to pretend, she wanted to find a real girl bird.

As she became increasingly frustrated, I told her I would look on the computer to find a picture so she could see a young female Oriole.  I did, and found the image you see above.

I assume the lack of immature females depicted on the Peterson FlashGuide has to do with conserving space, and most males birds being more colorful and showy, so the “before” and “after” images of males are more dramatic.  Perhaps male birds are more relevant for serious birdwatchers.  (Following my daughter’s lead, I appreciate and admire birds, in particular certain raptors, but I don’t go with binoculars looking for them.  Nothing against it, it’s just that I am not even a novice birdwatcher, so I’m ignorant about these nuances.)

I do not mean this post to sound humorless: Sexism in a bird map?  Is she nuts?  But ever since today’s pre-breakfast grapple for images of young female birds, I’ve been increasingly troubled by not being able to easily find an avian model for my daughter to cast in her homespun theatrics.  I’ve been reading blogs lately that deal with the incessant sexism young girls are subjected to (notably Reel Girl and Peggy Orenstein’s blog) and while I know it might sound far-fetched to claim that a bird guide can disenfranchise human girls, the thought has stuck with me today.

It’s such a tiny moment in my daughter’s life, and I know she’s getting plenty of other things that will not tear her spirit down.  But that I even thought about this lack makes me sad.  Bird guides aside, we have a long way to go, baby.

Cinderella, what big, sharp teeth you have!

Because of my recent rants about princess stuff, a friend recommended Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein.  I finally read it.  It was great.

It was great even through the lens of Orenstein’s preaching to the cliched choir (me).  It was great despite how depressing it was to read what inspired the Disney Princess phenomenon–in 2000, a new executive at Disney went to see Disney on Ice, and noticed, to his horror, that the girls wore HOMEMADE princess dresses.  In the small gowns, rather than creativity at the hearth, he saw a missed merchandising opportunity.  Thus the Disney Princess brand was born.  (And now we have girls clad in shiny, generic, made-in-China garb, rather than homespun results of someone’s invention.)

I live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a bubble like Orenstein’s city of Berkeley, both places relatively more immune to over-the-top materialistic madness than much of the U.S.  This book was great because it was reassuring to read someone thinking about how to revolt against the default definition of femininity as only and always about what girls look like rather than what they do.  And not only is Orenstein thinking about how to revolt, she’s done her research.  She backs up her arguments.  As a journalist, she seems responsible in her work.  Her credibility as a person in the narrative is crucial to how therapeutic this book was to read.  Throughout, she’s grappling in plain view with the same questions other parents are.

It’s overwhelming to consider how to fight the subtle and unsubtle corporate power of entities like Disney.  My four-year-old daughter saw the Disney Princess undies at Target, and it’s all she wanted.  She could not be easily dissuaded.  (I bought them.)  The other day at Goodwill, I steered her away from the shelf of half-clad Barbies in the toy section.  I lured her to the books, figuring that was safe and we could get out without her wanting to buy yet another “baby.”  (She has always loved her “babies” and it’s often a struggle to convince her she has plenty of plastic mouths to feed.)  In the book section, she found a shiny pink Barbie book called Little Sisters Keep Out.  She does not know what Barbie is, though she’d seen them on the shelf.  She saw the book’s cover and said, “It’s a princess book!”  Ironically, I had just finished reading Orenstein’s book the night before.   I stood there, holding my own literary find–a gorgeous illustrated Aesop’s Fables–and reminded myself I had grown up with Barbies, and I turned out okay.  (Yet, like Orenstein, my self esteem was not helped by Barbie, nor by Seventeen Magazine, nor that iconic, tarted-up teen, Brooke Shields.)  Like the “I grew up watching too much TV and I turned out okay” argument, my Barbie excuse thins when I think too hard about it.  I bought both books, though I refused to read the Barbie book to her.  I told her that I didn’t like the kind of story inside it.  She said, “I love it.”  I told her those kinds of stories say girls can only do certain things, like brush their hair, not run and jump and climb and do fun things like that.  “But they go to the playground,” she said.  (One picture shows the dolls sitting on swings.  She decided she would read the book to her babies.  She makes up stories about the plastic dolls in the photos, and we have a compromise.)

Now that we grownups realize what TV does to a young person, or what all-pink-all-the-time (not to mention the focus on how a girl-to-woman looks rather than how she feels) does to the feminine psyche, we have the power (the responsibility!) to make better choices.

Let’s!  Let’s.

For me, all roads lead back to Buffy.  A slayer, a killer of demons.  Always fashionable, sometimes wearing implausible slaying footwear (but hey, she’s the slayer!) she takes care of herself and by “takes care of herself” I do not mean a pedicure.  In a dark alley, Buffy is the one kicking ass.  The final paradigm shift of the end of the TV series still makes me cry, every time I think of it:

“From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Who can stand up, will stand up. Every one of you, and girls we’ve never known, and generations to come…they will have strength they never dreamed of, and more than that, they will have each other. Slayers.  Every one of us. Make your choice.  Are you ready to be strong?”

Buffy wasn’t taken seriously at first.  She grew from a blonde teen cheerleader to a strong woman who changed the (fictional) world.  She spawned a small academic field called Buffy studies.  (And yet I found a Buffy dress-up game, where you can change Buffy’s clothing as if she were a paperdoll on the screen.  Sigh.)  The size of the problem of raising a strong, confident female person amidst well-funded and deeply entrenched corporate sinisterness makes me tired.  I have no answers.  But Orenstein’s book gave me hope.  Maybe parents will read it and meet together, talk about alternatives to the madness.  Maybe this kid’s parents read the book.  Maybe this kid can help start the revolution.

Maybe we will start making our own costumes again.